The lack of recognition and reward for black actors in the film industry is a long-running scandal but debate on the topic significantly intensified in 2016 when the Academy Awards voters failed to nominate the black talent in Straight Outta Compton and Creed (both 2015), two critically acclaimed narratives about the African American experience. That Sylvester Stallone was nominated in the best supporting actor category for Creed, while Michael B. Jordan’s stellar turn as the lead was overlooked only rubbed salt into the wound. Many industry players spoke out and boycotted the ceremony, with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite flooding social media.
As Viola Davis said in her speech last year when she became the first African American woman to win the Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series: “The only thing that separates women of colour from everyone else is opportunity… You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
#OscarsSoWhite would suggest that this lack of opportunity extends more generally. If the situation is bad in the States, what does it say about the environment in the UK that a host of our own black actors have left to work in Hollywood? As David Oyelowo, who moved to Los Angeles in 2007, has said: “If I looked like Benedict [Cumberbatch] or Eddie Redmayne, I could do the films they have done that are being celebrated now. But myself, Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor had to gain our success elsewhere because there is not a desire to tell stories with black protagonists in a heroic context within British film.”
It’s clear, then, that from an actor’s perspective, the UK film industry has failed to make enough films that reflect and/or represent the multicultural makeup of the country – estimated by the 2011 census to be 7.5 percent Asian or Asian British, and 3.3 percent black or black British – or do enough to increase the diversity of its workforce. But to what extent is our understanding based on the assumed knowledge and incomplete analysis inherent in the imperfect and patchy existing histories of UK film? And how can we improve our understanding in such a way that, over the long-term, the record of ethnic diversity in film can be transformed?
The BFI is undertaking a research project to provide concrete data that will offer some clarity and context for these questions. Starting with a sample drawn from the most recent 10 years, from 1 January 2006 to the end of August 2016, a list of UK films has been identified in order to establish the proportional number of black actors in lead and named character roles.
In this context, ‘UK films’ were defined as fiction films of 40 minutes or longer length that were released theatrically in the UK by a member of the Film Distributors’ Association and produced or funded in full or in part by a company based in the UK or films certified as British by the BFI’s Cultural Test. This means that as well as obvious candidates such as Adulthood (2008), the data also includes the likes of American Gangster (2007) and Selma (2014). It is hoped that this sample will provide a substantial indicator of the true state of diversity in the UK film industry for film historians, critics, academics and researchers to interrogate, providing a catalyst for change and improvement. The BFI’s film-funding, policy-making and cultural competencies make it the best organisation to provide an overview of the landscape of film development, production, distribution, reception and heritage.
Of the 1,172 British films released from 2006-16, 476 featured at least one black actor in a lead or supporting role, around 40 per cent of the total. Many of these actors have been relatively prolific throughout their careers, with 70 of the 897 actors appearing in five or more UK films. However, when you break these figures down to investigate how substantial these roles are, the picture changes considerably. Of around 45,000 roles credited to actors in the UK in this period, only 218 were lead roles played by British black actors, which means only 0.5 per cent of all the credited roles were black leads. In fact, you would only need to watch 47 films to catch 50 percent of all these performances.
Only 14 actors from the sample have played more than two lead roles in this period, five of whom are women. Furthermore, only four black actors appear in our list of the 100 most prolific actors in UK films over the last decade – Noel Clarke, Nonso Anozie, Jumayn Hunter and Ashley Walters. All of this seems to confirm Oyelowo’s assertion that it is nearly impossible to play a black British lead protagonist in the cinema.
Looking at the types of roles black actors might play in films, it is perhaps unsurprising to note that the genre least likely to feature black actors is the historical/period drama, with around 80 per cent of the films in this period failing to feature a single black actor with a named character. Animation and romance are also underrepresented, with 79 percent of UK animation features and 69 percent of romantic encounters not involving any black actors.
Even in the most prolific genres with the most films produced in this period – horror, drama, comedy – the majority of titles do not feature a single black actor in a named character role. On the other side of this spectrum, 64 percent of UK crime films have found roles for black actors, with 15 percent of all films featuring black actors in this period focused on crime narratives.
Where black actors are being cast, they are mainly in stereotypical roles or stories that pigeonhole them and limit the range and depth of possible representation. The subjects that recur most frequently where a film has a more diverse cast, are slavery, racism, apartheid, colonialism, crime and gangs, with 12 Years a Slave (2013), Selma (2014) and this year’s Brotherhood all making the list of films that have cast the most black actors. It could be argued that where there are black roles, they are telling us nothing new – how great would it be to see more black British horror stars or romantic leads?
Is there really an assertion that audiences aren’t interested in diverse representations or narratives? In terms of box office there appears to be no suggestion that these factors affect revenue. On average, there is less likely to be a black lead in a film with a higher budget (£10m or more) – nine percent of higher-budget films in this time period had a black lead, against 18 percent in films with a budget of less than £500,000. Lower-budget films are more likely to have lower box-office takings (due to their lower marketing budgets etc), so though the data may suggest black leads are less likely to result in higher box-office takings, those figures are likely to be misleading as that’s probably the result of them having less financial backing to succeed in the first place.
The issue here is how to increase the diversity in our narratives in order to appeal to audience tastes we are failing to serve. Noel Clarke is highest on our list of most prolific black actors in the UK, with eight lead roles to his name, and he also writes, directs and produces many of the films in which he stars. His latest offering, Brotherhood, completes a trilogy of films where he has done just that. Since its release at the end of August, it has made more than £3.3m at the box office, dispelling the myth that there is no audience for more diverse stories.
Noel has often spoken about how he feels “massively disrespected” by the film industry. He talks about having to take on all these roles in order to get his stories on screen and give the opportunity for diverse audiences to see themselves represented within them: “Everything I create will always be diverse because that’s what I see, that’s my life, that’s how I grew up … [my audience] can look at people like Stormzy and Tinie [Tempah] and Dizzee [Rascal] and they can think, ‘We can achieve.’ When I was growing up I could barely look at anyone who made me believe I could achieve.”
This research is still at a very early stage, with more work to do to provide a larger, more detailed sample of data. What the research doesn’t encompass is television and theatre, only providing a snapshot of the landscape of acting roles in the UK for black actors. The BFI is looking at forming partnerships with other organisations in these areas to continue to enhance the data and our understanding of these issues across the arts.
Representation seems to be the key to forging changes in our film industry. We need to stop seeing ‘diversity’ as something to aspire to but recognise that we live in a diverse society and capture it as such. To slightly adapt a comment Geena Davis made at her symposium about gender in film at last year’s BFI London Film Festival: if you can see it, you can be it. This data paints a true picture of diversity in our recent moving image history and, as David Oyelowo asserted at this year’s Black Star symposium at the LFF, enables us to stop talking about diversity and instead “start to do diversity”.
Watch David Oyelowo speaking on diversity at the BFI London Film Festival.
This article originally appeared in Sight & Sound magazine.